Fathers welcome

30th July 2004 at 01:00
When headteacher Gareth Todd Jones proposed setting up a men's group to involve fathers in their children's education and lives, his idea was met with scepticism.

"Don't you have enough problems with the mothers?" enquired a fellow head.

Others warned that fathers simply would not turn up. But Mr Todd Jones - head of the 220-pupil Penpych community primary, in Treorchy, Rhondda Cynon Taff - was convinced of the need to involve men in school. "Our valley society is macho and male," he says, "but men's status and the importance given to fatherhood are low."

He advertised a meeting in the local rugby club ("their territory, not mine") for any interested fathers. Eight turned up - including three working miners, who command great respect locally. The men told the head they would like to do things with their children that were "active, practical and creative".

Three years later, the school's SuperDads group is thriving. Members have, with their children, built model cars and robots, undertaken gardening, cooking and outdoor pursuits, and gone on camping and day trips. They meet weekly, for two hours after school, and have raised money to finance their activities.

"The group has gone from strength to strength," says 46-year-old Philip Francis, an aerospace engineer with two children in the school. "Years ago, it was a father's job to go to work. They would leave the children to the women, which was wrong. Fathers should take a bigger part in their children's upbringing."

The Rhondda - socially conservative and blighted by the loss of the coal mining industry in south Wales - is not exactly the spiritual home of the new man. But Mr Todd Jones believes involving father figures (in whatever guise they appear in children's lives) can raise the self-esteem of children and adult men.

The school was opened five years ago, to serve a community reeling from the loss of its industry. "We were built with the theme of regeneration ringing in our ears," says Gareth Todd Jones. "A vital component of that is to locate men's purpose and status again, so they can break out of the low opinion they have of themselves and of fatherhood."

Penpych offers a range of family learning activities and has a creche for under-threes whose parents are studying.

One issue for SuperDads to overcome was the fear of the community suspecting that men wanting to get involved with children had lurid motives and must be paedophiles. In this, the group was helped by having the three miners turn up to the first meeting, says Mr Todd Jones; they were so trusted that "no one would question their motives".

Now the group has become established, he sees many benefits to children - girls as much as boys - of having the men in their lives work and play with them in school. "There is a different look in their eyes when dad arrives - a bit of a sparkle," he says. "Their performance improves, discipline, relations with other children - their whole demeanour. Dads are more inclined to let children take risks - and letting children take risks and succeed is an effective way to raise self-esteem."

Many men involved in SuperDads remember poor relationships with their own fathers; all express the desire not to repeat the same mistakes.

For more information on work with fathers and parents visit: www.nfpi.orgdataspotlightlads_dads.htm

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